by James Bowman
Times Square, October 1919
In a typically lumbering and awkward attempt at irony, Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post writes that “A new terror imperils New York, threatening to destroy all that it—nay, America—holds dear.” You could tell by the old-fashioned language in “nay” and the “holds dear” that she was being ironic. That’s good, because things that are non-ironically but putatively destructive of all we hold dear are rather a drug on the journalistic market these days, and one wouldn’t want to be blundering into yet another one of them by reading any further. But the relatively trivial matter which she wishes to trivialize further by her ridicule is the appearance in Times Square of bare breasted but usually body-painted women calling themselves desnudas who pose with tourists for tips. Some people don’t like this and are urging, not without result, the impeccably liberal powers that be in New York to do something about it.
Ms. Rampell, as you will already have worked out, thinks such people are all silly, puritanical, etc., etc., as well as getting things out of proportion. She mistakenly says that the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 1992 that “prohibiting women, but not men, from baring their chests in public amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex”— though in fact the ruling in favor of an earlier generation of desnudas was on a much narrower legal ground. Not that they wouldn’t stand a good chance of winning today on grounds of discrimination, even though such discrimination is of a sort that almost everyone above the age of puberty routinely engages in and considers merely commonsensical. That the law is a ass is no less true because doctrinaire feminists are demanding that it be a ass. Ms. Rampell, however, bases her own appeal on a slightly different rationale, pointing out that you can’t really put the complainers’ prudishness down to the patriarchy, at least not directly, since it is primarily women who are objecting. Instead, it is because “women are taught—it’s not innate, as clearly evidenced by the many unfazed young children who ambled by the desnudas on Sunday—to hate women’s bodies.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m not buying this. Feminists sometimes tell us that women are taught, by a culture that idealizes certain kinds of women’s bodies, to hate their own bodies for not measuring up to the ideal but, even if true, that’s hardly the same thing as hating women’s bodies. Presumably the desnudas don’t hate women’s bodies, though if their own are of the sort that our sexualized culture regards as approximating the ideal, they may be reinforcing a dissatisfaction with, if not a hatred of, their own bodies by less well-endowed females, which may in turn be why they are complaining. Yet if so, such complaints would then be a consequence neither of prudery nor of hatred of women’s bodies as such—their own or others—but of simple envy.
I’m not buying that either. It has become one of the more annoying habits of feminist thinking to identify any and every existing custom relating to sex and especially sexual difference as a result of “sexism” or some related social pathology. Our culture, like most others in the world, has never been without a sense of decorum about when and how far the exposure of female flesh—or, for that matter, male flesh—is and isn’t appropriate. Obviously, that sense has been changing and breaking down for much of the last century, but calling it either prudish or sexist does not make it go away or stop seeming necessary to most people even today. Feminists themselves rely on and appeal to a similar sense as they police the borders between public and private, male and female, though they conveniently forget the contradiction when they take up the cry for “equality.”
That’s now what the desnudas of Times Square and their ideologically motivated supporters are doing. “A few dozen” of them marched in Manhattan last weekend, according to The New York Times, “Seeking Equality, Not Tips.” As one of them explained to the Times reporter: “We have boyfriends that always take their shirts off, and we were like, ‘This isn’t fair.’” Interestingly, the article ended with the words of one of the women who won the1992 Appeals Court case in favor of women’s right to go bare-chested in public: “Women’s breasts,” said Ramona Santorelli, 57, of Rochester, “are very, very powerful.” Just so. In other words, unlike men’s. In other words, not equal. As everybody except the law already knows.
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John Singer Sargent, Group with Parasols (Siesta), c. 1904–5, Oil on Canvas, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Metropolitan Museum's exhibit “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends" does not begin with a painting of an heiress or a picture of the artist, that deep crease between his grey eyebrows. It begins with a tall vertical window, a little larger than a full-body portrait. This window opens onto the show, forcing viewers to confront two unfortunate truths: a successful portrait painter cannot simply paint "from life." He must build a new world for his sitter, a world with nice lighting, good posture, and a striking composition. He also must let the sitter eclipse him; he must cultivate a fascination for his subject, but not himself.
And John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was certainly a successful portrait painter. Though born to American parents, he grew up in Europe, where he studied with Carolus-Duran and León Bonnat. He first exhibited works in the Paris Salon in the 1880s, and soon became one of the most beloved painters of his time. He bounced between Europe and America for his entire career, collecting friends in London, Paris, New York, and Boston. While wealthy intellectuals and businessmen commissioned monumental Sargent portraits, the artist also painted many of his friends for pleasure. (He often gave these portraits to the sitters, and refused to accept a cent in return.) Both commissioned and non-commissioned portraits hang on the Met's walls right now, forming the expansive, astounding "Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends."
The curators have grouped the paintings in chronological, geographic order—the first room, bright and bold, holds paintings made in Paris between 1874 and 1885. This includes the “Portrait of Madame X” (1884), Sargent's most famous and scandalous work. The ravishing socialite preens at the back of the room, with a wall to herself. Her black velvet bodice absorbs incoming light, while her skin glows like a half-melted candle, almost dripping with arrogance. The room also includes a few unconventional portraits—despite his commercial success, Sargent had daring artistic sensibilities. In "A Gust of Wind," for instance, the viewer looks up from a sandy bank at Judith Gautier, who looms in a cream-colored gown. And in "Madame Édouard Pailleron," (1879) we look down at Marie Pailleron, who stands among crocuses. The garden has shadings of Symbolism, dappled and flat as a Kilmt plein-air painting.
The next room, far less regal, features the "Broadway" paintings, completed in England between 1885 and 1889. Here, Sargent tried his hand at intimacy and impressionism. In the small "An Out-of-Doors Study," (1889) Paul Helleu and his wife sit near a canoe, their faces obscured by straw hats. Helleu paints with a careful hand and rapt attention as grasses sway around him.
Sargent was close with Monet and admired his art, yet the American painter's stabs at impressionism were less successful than his realist works—they're a little dull, lacking his trademark vivacity. Still, the "Broadway" paintings also include informal interior scenes, nods to Degas and Manet rather than Monet. In "Le Verre de Porto (A Dinner Table at Night)," (1884) for instance, Edith and Albert Vickers enjoy a postprandial glass of port. The composition is startling: while Albert broods at the edge of the painting, Edith stares out from the center. She has a defiant, impenetrable gaze, like a Hopper figure's lonely ancestor. And a deep ruby red suffuses the room, glancing off silver lamps and a chalice. The painting has an uncanny resemblance to Matisse's "Red Room."
The curators dedicate a third room to his London paintings, made between 1889 and 1913. The large portraits of Ellen Tarry, La Carmencita, and Mrs Hugh Hammersley are resplendent against dusky blue walls. In this impressive room, it becomes clear why Sargent stopped painting portraits around 1907. The exhibit does a wonderful job of exhausting visitors, just as the endless sitters and subjects must have exhausted poor Sargent. Each placard sums up the life of another literary or artistic figure, from the haughty Gabriel Fauré to delicate Graham Robertson, personalities so vibrant they jump off the canvas. (An art critic of the time wrote that the Mrs Hugh Hammersley's portrait "literally vibrates with life.") Sargent never failed to capture a subject's spirit and these grand works feel like hurricanes, rushes and whorls of color spinning around a calm, exquisite face.
The exhibit's final rooms document Sargent's later work: candy-colored watercolors, plein-air paintings, lively charcoal sketches. The placards are no longer biographies—some even mention "unidentified figures" and "blurred features." In "Group with Parasols," (1904) for instance, Sargent painted four friends in an Alpine meadow. The grasses encroach on the figures, and the canvas seems almost abstract, a muddle of greens and whites and browns. These subjects don't eclipse Sargent; they don't demand recognition as Isabella Stewart Gardner does in her astonishing portrait. (It has the symmetry and splendor of an orthodox icon.) Instead, the artist's playful good nature lights up the last rooms.
Despite this turn towards his own artistic interests, Sargent painted only a handful of self-portraits, two of which appear in the exhibit. They're easy to miss, lost among towering pictures. (In fact, they were both commissions.) He wears the same solemn expression in both, his body at angle, his face obscured by shadows. The curators write that "Sargent was not naturally self-reflective; he was too much up and at life for that." In other words, he was too often with other people, painting them, sketching them, watching them sing and act and play the piano.
As they leave the exhibit, visitors walk through a gift shop. A large mirror greets them, a counterpoint to that original window. Though the mirror has a commercial function (for those trying on scarves and Sargent-themed jewelry), it's an interesting end to the show, creating a parallel between artist and visitor. Just as John Singer Sargent reclaimed his own identity after years of painting portraits, so too must the visitor reclaim his own identity after such a comprehensive exhibition."SaS
Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, which opened on June 30, can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until October 4, 2015.
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Andris Nelsons/Photo: Marco Borggreve
Here at the Salzburg Festival, the Vienna Philharmonic is king—the resident orchestra. But sometimes interlopers get in, and sometimes those interlopers are American. In 2008, the Cleveland Orchestra came (albeit under an Austrian music director, Franz Welser-Möst). This year, the Boston Symphony has come.
Its conductor is Andris Nelsons, the young Latvian, who has been with the BSO since last fall, and with whom the orchestra is expecting a long relationship. He is a protégé of Mariss Jansons, his great countryman, who has been the music director in Pittsburgh, Amsterdam, and other places.
At the Grosses Festspielhaus last night, the BSO played one work: the Mahler Sixth. The day before, in the same hall, the Vienna Phil. played one work: the Mahler Ninth. Rather than give you a review of the Bostonians, I thought I would jot a cultural note or two.
There they were, warming up onstage, the Bostonians. Why do I mention something so prosaic? Well, American orchestras warm up onstage. European orchestras, as a rule, warm up behind the scenes, then take the stage, then tune, then start.
Give you another cultural difference: When we Americans pass through a row in a theater, we do so with our backs (and butts) to the people already seated in the row (or standing to let us pass through). In Europe, they pass while facing the people.
When I first started attending performances in Europe, I found this custom strange and awkward. But I adapted, mainly.
We Americans, as a rule, like ice in our drinks. Others, of course, do not. One could go on. Vive la différence! (And to heck with conformity.)
Before the Bostonians came, I had been listening to the Vienna Philharmonic for about two weeks. And, frankly, the American orchestra, warming up onstage, sounded needlessly cacophonous to me. Jarring. Also, it was like the music was starting before it really started, if you know what I mean.
In the midst of this cacophony, the people who run the Grosses Festspielhaus played their cellphone announcement—their recorded announcement telling people to be sure their phones are switched off. You could barely hear it. So, after the orchestra quieted, they played that announcement again.
The concert was scheduled to begin at 9 o’clock. Over here, the concerts usually begin right on the dot. At home—in New York, at least—there is always—always—a five-minute grace period. If the performance is at 7:30, there is no music until 7:35, at the earliest. Or rather, the recitalist or the conductor does not appear until 7:35.
Last night in the Grosses, 9 o’clock came and went. Some patrons around me looked at their watches, apparently confused. Maestro Nelsons walked out at 9:05, just as we would back home.
Was there five minutes’ grace because there was just a single work on the program (and thus no intermission)? Was there five minutes’ grace because there would be no late seating, no seating between movements? Maybe, but I doubt it.
Just a few more notes, while I have you on the line. At one point during the Mahler, Nelsons did a classic Jansons leanback move. I smiled. I thought I was looking at Jansons himself. I could glimpse Jansons in some other moves, too.
Some years ago, the New York Philharmonic had an assistant conductor, a young woman from China. One night, I watched her execute some classic, and classy, Maazel moves. I almost fell out of my chair.
Of course, Michael Tilson Thomas is now a senior statesman of the podium, and he’s still doing what I still think of as Lenny moves (i.e., Bernstein moves)—including that side-to-side thing, that swish. Makes me smile.
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This week: Whitman, Wilson, and Sonic Wind.
Fiction: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark (Folio Society): I’ve long been a great admirer of the work done by the Folio Society, a niche British imprint that creates beautiful editions of (mostly) classic literature. Though the editions are a bit dear, bibliophiles recognize the value of a stunningly illustrated book (a personal favorite is the cover of the Society’s Lucky Jim, which features the characteristic honeycomb half-pints recognizable to any frequenter of British pubs), and Beryl Cook’s plates for Muriel Spark’s timeless novel certainly justify the price. The book, which takes place in 1930s Edinburgh (that most English of Scottish cities), concerns the eponymous Brodie, a domineering schoolteacher at a girls’ day school who imparts onto her provincial pupils a love of things foreign, including Italian fascism. With the school year set to begin anew, it’s high time to revisit this stylish meditation on the follies of youth. —BR
Nonfiction: Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth, by Craig Ryan (Liveright): Hardly anyone thinks twice today about stepping into a car or an airplane. Yet it was just a few short decades ago that travel by either method would put you at great physical risk. We can thank John Paul Stapp for this progress. The U.S. air force officer and doctor spent much of his life researching the effects of deceleration and acceleration, volunteering himself as the test subject for many of his experiments. He also studied (again, using himself as test subject) how fast a pilot could fly in a jet with no canopy and remain unharmed (he made it up to 570 miles per hour in his fastest run), and was one of the first to practice skydiving. One of his greatest contributions to humanity, however one that reveals a great deal about Stapp himself—is his discovery of Stapp’s law: "The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle." —RH
Poetry: Drum-Taps, by Walt Whitman, edited by Lawrence Kramer (New York Review of Books Poets): I had occasion the other day, as I often do, to stroll by the Park Avenue Armory (correctly the Seventh Regiment Armory), an imposing, hulking red brick Gothic revival edifice occupying the entire city block between 66th and 67th Streets and Park and Lexington Avenues. Now a performance space with a decidedly experimental bent, the Armory was once the administrative headquarters for the Union Army’s Seventh Regiment, colloquially known as the “silk stocking” regiment for its patrician members. The interior (with original designs by Stanford White and Louis Comfort Tiffany, among others) still retains an air of martial gentility, with old wood and decorative panels, and one can still detect an air of hanging smoke in the stunning Board of Officers room. All this reminds me of Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his 1865 collection of Civil War poetry, now 150 years old. The titular poem, which depicts Manhattan on the verge of war, is a study in naïveté, radiating enthusiasm for a just war without acknowledging the inevitable and horrific consequences. The poem concludes with these characteristic lines: “Often in peace and wealth you were pensive, or covertly frown’d amid all your children/ But now you smile with joy, exulting Old Mannahatta!” Let us be thankful that today’s Manhattan is pensive in its peace and that we may read the recently reissued edition of Drum-Taps without the “silent cannons—soon to cease [their] silence!” —BR
Theater: American Century Cycle, by August Wilson (Through August 26): There are just two days left to appreciate the American Century Cycle of the playwright August Wilson in its entirety, and in sequence, through a historic recording made two years ago in the Greene Space of WNYC. Available for free streaming through Wednesday, the superb recordings bring Wilson's Hill District of Pittsburgh to life, decade by decade, through resinous language and interconnected, mythological storytelling. The series features such award-winning works as Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and Gem of the Ocean, all voiced by some of today's finest actors, several of whom, such as Phylicia Rashad and Anthony Chisholm, appeared in the original stage productions. —JP
Music: Dmitri Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons: A new CD from Deutsche Grammophon brings us a live recording of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, which, along with the Eighth, represents the darkest and most harrowing of the composer's symphonic output. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra give a haunting performance on this disc, which also includes the brash passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Look for Jay Nordlinger's review of this album and others in our September issue. —ECS
From the archive: Whitman’s spell, by Thomas M. Disch: In this piece from October 2008, Thomas Disch surveys the acolytes of Walt Whitman, who praised the poet and burnished his lofty self-image.
From our latest issue: The heaven-taught ploughman, by Neilson MacKay: On a new edition of the collected works of Robert Burns.
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Head over to City Journal for the full review and more thoughts from "an unlikely fan of Elon Musk."
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Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli
Some musicians are hit-or-miss, and some are steady on (for better or worse). There have been many hit-or-miss musicians, and I’ll name four of them—two conductors and two singers: Lorin Maazel and Valery Gergiev; Jessye Norman and Plácido Domingo.
Frankly, Horowitz was hit-or-miss too. People like to remember him as godlike, and he was—but not all the time. He could play like a dog. Today, only the godlikeness is remembered, which is right.
Daniel Barenboim is one of the great hit-or-missers. This is true whether he’s on the podium or at the piano. I could tell many stories, but will confine myself to just one. (New Criterion readers have heard all my stories anyway.)
Years ago—it was in 2005, Google tells me—Barenboim came to Carnegie Hall with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was, in fact, his farewell tour with that orchestra. On three different nights, they played three major symphonies: the Bruckner Fifth, the Schubert Ninth (i.e., the “Great C-major”), and the Mahler Fifth. The Bruckner and the Mahler were okay—you know, good enough for government work. But the Schubert? It was surpassing. It was probably the most musical, most powerful, and most arresting performance of this symphony I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard everybody conduct it, I believe).
What happened? I have no idea. I doubt Barenboim would either. Or the Chicagoans.
In any event, Barenboim conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra here at the Salzburg Festival on Saturday morning. There was one work on the program: the Mahler Ninth. This is the composer’s last will and testament, so to speak, although he certainly didn’t want it to be: he tried to avoid the Curse of the Ninth, and he lived to finish a movement of a tenth, but . . .
Was Barenboim a hit or a miss? A hit, definitely, and so was Mahler.
At the outset, the work was orderly, warm, and singing. The conductor showed a sense of pace and architecture. These Mahler symphonies are long journeys, like Bruckner symphonies. A conductor has to bear in mind what has come before and what will come after.
Occasionally, the VPO was sloppy in the first movement, and Barenboim simply bulled his way through. He does that at the piano, too.
I thought of Paul Johnson, the great British historian. His advice to writers who feel themselves stuck is, Be like a rhino. Just put your head down and charge ahead. (See a 2006 column, “The Rhino Principle,” here.)
Rhino-like or not—bull-like or not—Barenboim has heft, gravitas. He can put his shoulders into music, and an orchestra responds.
The VPO is a lavishly praised orchestra—deservedly so—but it does not always play well. For one thing, you never know who’s going to be in the orchestra. (Neither does a conductor, believe me.) Hordes of players rotate in and out.
Do you know this old expression? “Once a man has established the reputation of an early riser, he can sleep till noon.” No matter how the VPO plays, they will be cheered and praised. But on Saturday morning they played very well indeed. This was true of the orchestra as a whole and of individual players. The principal horn, for example, was like butter. So was his section at large.
On the podium, Barenboim embraced Mahler’s oddness. He was willing for passages to be obnoxious and unpretty. He also brought out a streak of anxiety, which can be embedded (too much so). In addition, the strings applied just the right amount of portamento. This makes a big difference in a Mahler performance. Too much or too little is harmful.
The ending of the first movement was rather like its beginning: orderly.
The second movement was rightly sassy, puckish. It had a proper amount of dryness. Then it had gaiety, a whirling carnival atmosphere. The third movement—the Rondo-Burleske—was bristling, a demonstration of ordered madness.
Before the fourth and final movement, Barenboim allowed an unusually long pause. That was wise (and the fruit of experience, probably). The atmosphere of the Rondo-Burleske should be cleared out before this finale—this Abschied (farewell)—begins.
The Abschied should tear your heart out, and it pretty much did in the Great Festival Hall on Saturday morning. (Actually, it was past noon at this point, the concert, and the symphony, having begun at 11.) Barenboim had the VPO making a huge sound. Too big? Possibly, but Barenboim had a big, glorious instrument at his disposal, and he wanted to air it out. Plus, when he wanted, and needed, yet more sound, he got it.
The symphony ended with its peace. Or is it resignation? Is there a difference? Oh, yes, I think so. And, in this performance, the ending was ambiguous. So it is in the score, I suppose. A masterpiece of masterpieces.
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James Bradburne, new Director of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera © James O'Mara
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Cecilia Bartoli (Iphigénie) and Christopher Maltman (Oreste) / © Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus
Among the offerings at the Salzburg Festival this year is Iphigénie en Tauride, Gluck’s opera from 1779. It is based on Euripides. There are three main roles in this show: Iphigénie, her brother Oreste, and his pal Pylade. To fill those roles, Salzburg hired three stars—starting with one big, big star.
That was Cecilia Bartoli, the Italian mezzo-soprano. She is Iphigénie, of course. Oreste is Christopher Maltman, the British baritone. And Pylade is Rolando Villazón, the Mexican tenor.
The orchestra, chorus, and conductor all come from Switzerland—Italian Switzerland, to be specific. I Barocchisti (a period band, as you can tell) and the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera are conducted by Diego Fasolis. Last year at this festival, he presided over a Schubert evening at the Mozarteum. Bartoli was the draw on that occasion, too.
Iphigénie has not one stage director but two: the team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. More about them, and their production, later.
Last night, Bartoli sang as she can be relied on to sing: with intensity and commitment, as well as accuracy and assurance. Everything matters so much to her. She sings as though her life depended on it. By the way, in this production, Iphigénie tries to kill herself at the end of an aria. That’s Bartoli.
Her intensity and commitment can be spread to her fellow singers, and others involved in a production. I suspect that this is occurring in Iphigénie.
Can Bartoli actually be too intense? I sometimes think that she would sing “Pass the salt” as though her life depended on it. But Iphigénie does not suffer from Bartoli’s intensity, not at all. Last night, she invested the opera with life (and death).
But so did the conductor, let me tell you. Fasolis is a musician of judgment, taste, and integrity. Passion too, when that is called for. His pacing of Iphigénie was superb. His orchestra could be a little rough, but, under his direction, they were entirely musical. And the chorus sang with precision, style, and beauty.
Christopher Maltman was brave and convincing. Why do I say “brave”? His pitch was not always perfect, but he was fearless in soft, exposed music (for example). And he acted with much pathos.
Villazón sang some beautiful phrases, which I was pleased and relieved to hear—he has faced vocal and other problems in recent years. But often, his voice was tremulous and overexcited. Also, his middle range gave him trouble. The higher or lower he went, the better off he was.
This is a tenor who tries so hard. It can be painful to watch and hear. And yet, this was an evening for extreme passion, so he fit right in.
There were other singers in this show, including Michael Kraus, an Austrian baritone who portrayed the Scythian king, Thoas. He owns a beautiful, somewhat booming instrument, and if his pitch occasionally strayed, his sheer sound made up for it.
The Leiser-Caurier production is set in the present day, apparently. Characters are dressed casually. You know the expression “Come as you are”? The characters do so, by the look of it. They are in sweatpants, sneakers, and the like.
In the climactic scene, Maltman wears nothing at all. His hands are cupped over his privates, forming a fleshly figleaf. Time was—do they do this still?—directors seized every opportunity to take Nathan Gunn’s shirt off. (He is an American baritone, or “bari-hunk,” as some people say.) Maltman is built like a soccer or rugby star. Iphigénie’s directors could not resist, evidently.
One of the best moments in this production is the appearance of the goddess Diana, near the end. All of a sudden, there she is, a vision in gold—her face is gold, too. Striking.
Leiser and Caurier have put together an intelligent production. It is 100 percent defensible. They have a case to make. Ultimately, however, their production is not for me, for one main reason: It and the opera do not really match, in my estimation. They are at odds. The ear hears one thing—a late Baroque or early Classical opera (played by a period band, moreover)—and the eye sees another.
Do I demand an Iphigénie in which the characters are dressed in togas and move in stately fashion? Of course not. But . . .
My biases aside, the Salzburg Festival has done well by Gluck’s opera, milking its drama for all it’s worth.
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The Marriage of Figaro / © Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz
A successful Marriage of Figaro is a very satisfying evening—and that’s what we had at the Salzburg Festival last night. This Figaro was not always sparkling, but it was always intelligent. And it sparkled often enough.
Figaro, even more than most Mozart operas, has a great many components. You can start with a cast of about ten. Not a single component failed last night.
And plenty of credit goes to the stage director, Sven-Eric Bechtolf. He obeyed the rule “First, do no harm.” Beyond that, he did considerable good. But we’ll get to the production later.
Playing in the pit was the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and leading that band was Dan Ettinger, an Israeli conductor. He also provided the continuo, i.e., presided at the keyboard. His fingerprints, like Mozart’s, were all over this performance.
The overture was mediocre, not one whit better. The VPO made a poorish sound. The music lacked its lilt, impishness, and delight. This music is practically the high point of the opera, but it was possibly the low point of the performance—after that, everything bloomed.
At his worst, Ettinger was workmanlike, adequate; at his best, he was inspired. You could argue with his choices here and there: I thought “Dove sono,” the Countess’s aria, was too slow, and unmoving. (Unmoving in more than one sense.) But other parts of the score were excellent, and Ettinger made me notice things in this score that had somehow escaped my attention.
I’ll give you one highlight from Ettinger’s baton: the “wedding march,” as it’s known. It was squirmy and deliciously pompous—kind of sarcastic. What an ingenious little composition this is, in an opera bursting with them.
The title role, Figaro, was taken by Adam Plachetka, a bass-baritone from the Czech Republic. He was explosive, cunning, and very human. In other words, he was a fit Figaro. His “Se vuol ballare” had the appropriate menace. His “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” was unusually theatrical, and winning.
His Susanna was Martina Janková, a Swiss soprano, but one born in the Czech lands, as you can tell. In her singing, she was forward, pointed; in her acting—as well as in her singing—she was spunky. But she also showed gracefulness in that graceful aria “Deh vieni.”
Our Count was Luca Pisaroni, the bass-baritone from Italy. He was, I believe, the only Italian on the stage—and it made a big difference when he opened his mouth, especially when he opened his mouth to speak. One was hearing the real, convincing McCoy.
A little Googling tells me that I have been writing about him since 2003, when he appeared at the Salzburg Festival in two Mozart operas: Don Giovanni (as Masetto) and La clemenza di Tito (Publio). I keep saying the same things about him, and have no reason to stop now.
He emits a beautiful ribbon of sound. His singing is accurate, clean, understanding, and, again, beautiful. It is also sincere. When he sang “Contessa, perdono” last night, he really meant it.
Let me be a little hokey and say that Pisaroni is a singer born for Mozart.
Among his qualities, whatever the opera and whatever the composer, is likability. Extreme likability. Now, the Count is a not very likable character, but in these hands? He was likable despite himself.
Sometimes this Count had a befuddled air, reminding me of Thurston Howell III. Sometimes he had a lanky agility, à la Dick Van Dyke. And when Pisaroni had to bring down the seigneurial hammer, he did.
By the way, the Count plays with a little dog in this production, early on. And he—the dog—was Pisaroni’s own, a pooch named Tristan (thus introducing a Wagner note on this Mozart evening).
The Countess was Anett Fritsch, an elegant German soprano, whose “Porgi, amor” was a model of long-breathed beauty. All through the opera, Fritsch sang with poise. Cherubino was Margarita Gritskova, a Russian mezzo. She was a sparkplug, a shape-shifter, a Cherubino. She walked the line between personableness and hamminess, not an easy walk to walk.
Bartolo was Carlos Chausson, a veteran bass-baritone from Spain (despite his sharing a name with a French composer, Ernest). What a beautiful, glowing instrument he has—still. And his Bartolo was a pleasure to watch. Partnering him as Marcellina was Ann Murray, the veteran Irish mezzo (not to be confused with Anne Murray, the veteran Canadian pop singer). She is a total pro, as you could tell with every note she sang and every move she made.
And could I just say that Marcellinas tend to remind me of Ruth Buzzi, complete with handbag? Marcellinas hit people with handbags.
Basilio was an Austrian tenor, Paul Schweinester, who did a fine job. In this production, Basilio is more mincing than ever. He also seems to be—brace yourself for an outdated phrase—a tormented homosexual. He lunges in agony at Cherubino. Hmmm . . .
Barbarina has one of the strangest little creations in this opera, an F-minor aria, over in a second, but somewhat haunting. An Austrian soprano, Christina Gansch, sang it with maturity. Barbarinas tend to be sprightly and innocuous. This one was strangely, and interestingly, darkling.
Back to Sven-Eric Bechtolf and his production. In recent years, I have taken to quoting Frank Lloyd Wright, who said, “A building ought to be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace.” The same is true of opera productions. They should be graces, not disgraces, to the operas they are meant to serve. They should harmonize with the music, the libretto, and the story.
Salzburg has seen its share—more than its share—of disgraces. Bechtolf’s Figaro is a grace.
Let me say what Bechtolf does not do: He does not have the Count and Susanna carrying on an affair, and he does not have the Countess and Cherubino carrying on an affair. Some directors do. And therefore they have no Figaro. Yes, Bechtolf’s Basilio is a little weird, but when isn’t Basilio a little weird?
This director actually likes the opera—likes Figaro, likes Mozart and Da Ponte (the librettist). He’s working with them, not against them.
He updates their opera, to be sure. This production is set sometime in the early twentieth-century—the 1920s? The Count (if I remember correctly) dials an old-timey telephone, with the receiver on the top. The sets are layered, giving an Upstairs, Downstairs feel. Rooms are open to the audience, meaning that you can see what various characters are doing in the various parts of the palace.
The production is fluid, just like the opera. It is quick-moving, saucy, farcical, subtle, poignant, and fizzy. It is sane and healthy, not sick. Where do I get those words? From Lorin Maazel, whom I interviewed in 2009. (Go here.) The maestro and I were talking about opera productions, and particularly those in Salzburg.
Bechtolf, incidentally, is the artistic administrator of the festival, not just a stage director. Given what he has done to The Marriage of Figaro—namely, serve the opera—maybe he should fire himself?
The production finishes in an unusual way. When the music stops, the action does not. The curtain does not fall. The characters have a party onstage, with lots of clinking of glasses. One by one, cast members leave the party, just for a moment, to bow to the audience.
Tristan returns, his tail wagging happily. I think practically every member of the audience wagged his tail happily at this evening of Mozart and opera.
One more word: Years ago, I interviewed Werner Hink, who was then a concertmaster of the Vienna Phil. He said he had played The Marriage of Figaro—or “Figaros Hochzeit,” as he called it, in his native tongue—more than 500 times. And never tired of it. Always basked in it. That’s Mozart for you.
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by James Bowman
President and Mrs. Truman at a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner
According to The New York Times, “State by State, [the] Democratic Party Is Erasing Ties to Jefferson and Jackson.” I’d have thought that “ties” were things to be “cut” rather than “erased,” but it turns out that “erased” in the once-favored etymological sense of “rooted up” is what the headline writer meant.
On the face of it, this exercise in forgetting is absurd. Because your ex-heroes didn’t do a couple of centuries ago everything that’s on your agenda today are they not only to be demoted from hero-status but treated as if they had done nothing? They didn’t know and could not have foreseen what your agenda today would be! Can you get more blinkered and arrogant than this in your attitude to the past?
But when you come to think about it a little, such an erasure makes a bit more sense. For the true progressive, the past is always going to be an embarrassment. Once you have chosen incrementalism as your path to a utopian future, you have committed yourself to a political process and therefore to compromises of one sort or another with the forces of reaction. And once those forces have been weakened to the point where they can no longer demand compromise, or so many compromises as they formerly demanded, you won’t want to be reminded of your past accommodations with those whom it has become more and more safe to regard as simply evil-doers in the lurid melodrama you have made of history.
Indeed the compromisers themselves may come to be regarded as evil, as Jefferson and Jackson now are by many if not most in the Democratic Party on account of their having owned slaves and, in Jackson’s case, mistreated American Indians. Ideally, the progressive will end up in the same place as the revolutionaries who regarded the reactionaries as evil-doers from the beginning and who need to re-start history’s clock at Year Zero on assuming power—it just takes him a little longer to get there. But the revolutionaries, too, because they must live in the real world rather than the utopian one of their imagination, are frequently embarrassed by the past and find that the evil ones have a bad habit of cropping up in unexpected places. That’s why Orwell’s Big Brother needed the Ministry of Truth to make sure that inconvenient memories of his own past found their way to the memory holes.
Scrubbing Jefferson and Jackson from the once proud history of the Democratic Party suggests that that party’s progressives are already becoming comfortable with their Orwellian future. One Stacey Abrams, the minority leader of the Georgia House, is quoted in the Times article as saying “that the state party stripped Jefferson and Jackson from the name of the dinner to tell ‘the entire story of our party’”—by which of course she means the entire story as amended by dumping all memory of everything that it did and everyone who was in it up until the day before yesterday. The logic by which, insofar as possible, all memory of the party’s support for slavery and segregation has been eliminated from its “entire story” is only being carried to its logical conclusion in getting rid of Jefferson and Jackson.
Ironically, as the Times article points out, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of modern economic liberalism, was particularly devoted to elevating the two men, rushing to complete the Jefferson Memorial so his party could have a monument to compete with the Republicans’ Lincoln Memorial.” In other words, by calling attention to Jefferson’s achievements, FDR hoped to gloss over his party’s past association with slavery. How long before Roosevelt, too, four times elected president with the help of segregationist voters, will have to be wiped from the party’s memory? How long, indeed, before those who are now denouncing Jefferson and Jackson as un-persons are themselves reduced to the same status because of some unforeseen and unforeseeable accommodation of their own with the forces of evil? At least we evil ones stand by our own.
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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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September 29, 2015
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